On April 12, New York Times bestselling author Rio Cortez shared her work, centering on Black culture and identity, for a poetry reading at Salt Lake Community College’s Taylorsville Redwood campus.
Cortez, born and raised in Salt Lake City, is a poet and author known for her 2020 picture book “The ABC’s of Black History” and her debut poetry collection “Golden Ax” released last year, which explores Black womanhood and her family’s history as Afropioneers in the American West.
The Student Writing and Reading Center hosted the event. Cortez covered a range of poems from her collection, including “Black Annie Hall,” “Pre-Earth and Post-Earth Life,” and “To Salt Lake, Letter Regarding Genealogy.” Cortez opened by reading a portion of the author’s note in “Golden Ax,” which introduces the rest of the work.
“In many ways, the ‘Golden Ax’ hopes to find its place and definition as a work of Afropioneerism or Afrofrontierism, terms that describe and inform my family ancestry and experience,” she read. “These terms approach my experience of girlhood in Utah, wondering how we came to be here, feeling singular in a place where I knew we had been for generations.”
Cortez explained to the audience that the name “Golden Ax” is derived from a Black newspaper called The Broad Ax. The paper began publication in Salt Lake City during the late 19th century but relocated to Chicago in 1899 following a series of conflicts with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
One poem Cortez read, titled “Black Frasier Crane,” examines films such as “Annie Hall” and the television sitcom “Frasier” and ponders what those works would look like if Black women were not invisible in lead roles.
“Black Frasier has a small staff but she treats them like family. She is a soothing radio voice and reserved parking at both her condo and the office,” Cortez read. “Black Frasier complains about little everythings because what is more important than the fine dusting of cinnamon on the perfect ratio of foam to espresso?”
Cortez also wrote about conducting family research and learning one’s ancestral history of slavery in the poem “Family Tree at Earth’s Surface.”
“I come to nameless mother and her son, in one matter of seeing they lived not long ago but for me unnamed mother is just as well the moon,” Cortez read. “Blackness does not begin there but first breaks into a boy they call Jackson, leaver of his last name, farmer, coffin builder.”
During a question-and-answer session that closed the event, one audience member asked Cortez what it was like to grow up in Utah as a person of color.
“It was hard,” she responded. “I felt totally isolated and totally alone … hyper visible and invisible at the same time. [I felt] tired of being representative of everybody that looks like me and I think that just takes energy and work.”